Thursday, January 21, 2021

Community, Communication and the Wisdom of Trees

By:  Andrea Yoder

A frosty January sunrise over the farm
We have always been intrigued by the intricate design of the natural world around us, whether it be the short-lived sunrise or sunset, a clear sky filled with bright stars, or the peace we feel after a soft, gentle snowfall.  The natural world surrounds us with awe, wonder and mystery every day.  Recently we read an intriguing New York Times article entitled
“The Social Life Of Forests” by Ferris Jabr.  The article focused on the work of Suzanne Simrad, a professor of forestry at the University of British Columbia.  Simrad has focused her career on exploring the ways trees communicate and interact with each other and their surroundings.  She has spent much of her life studying trees in the old growth forests of Canada, including her childhood days playing and exploring the forests where her grandfather and uncles used horses to log the forests with low impact methods.  In May of this year, Simrad’s memoir entitled “Finding the Mother Tree” will be released.  This book chronicles her life’s work proving that “the forest was more than just a collection of trees.”  I am anxiously awaiting the release of her memoir, but my interest has been piqued and I wanted to share a little glimpse of Simrad’s work with you.  Perhaps this topic is of interest to you as well, and if it is, I encourage you to check out some of the resources at the end of this article.

A hillside forest provides the backdrop 
for fields of sunchokes in bloom
While our attention is on vegetables growing in our fields for most of the year, we acknowledge the fact that trees are an integral part of our valley landscape and ecosystem.  For much of the year, they provide a quiet backdrop for our activities and we really don’t pay much attention to them.  They quietly exist and are, for the most part, self-sufficient.  Several times a year their appearance changes, which catches our attention for a moment.  In the spring we notice when the brown, skeletal hillsides start to take on a green hue as the trees start to push out buds, then leaves, until finally the canopy of the forest has fully opened.  In the fall we notice once again as their leaves start to lose their green and turn to shades of red, yellow and orange, marking the transition into a new season.  
And finally, the trees release and drop their leaves, opening up our view of the forest and giving our wooded hillsides a whole new look while the green of the valley fades to exist only in the evergreen pines.  Perhaps we notice trees more this time of year because they are more prominent on our landscape that is otherwise white.  Or perhaps it is simply because we lift our eyes from the ground and look up long enough to see the trees.  How often do you take advantage of the opportunity to lift your eyes to notice the trees in your surroundings?  Upon first appearance trees appear to be solitary in their existence.  Occasionally their branches may become entangled or vines may grow around them, but otherwise they appear to stand on their own.  But Simrad will quickly point out that a forest is much more than just a collection of solitary trees.  A forest is actually a living, breathing community of trees, plants and lifeforms that is intricately connected by a vast network of underground fungi called mycorrhizae  In Jabr’s article he writes:  
A ghost plant growing from the rich forest 
floor near a fallen tree

“Before Simard and other ecologists revealed the extent and significance of mycorrhizal networks, foresters typically regarded trees as solitary individuals that competed for space and resources and were otherwise indifferent to one another.  Simard and her peers have demonstrated that this framework is far too simplistic.  An old-growth forest is neither an assemblage of stoic organisms tolerating one another’s presence nor a merciless battle royale:  It’s a vast, ancient and intricate society.  There is conflict in a forest, but there is also negotiation, reciprocity and perhaps even selflessness.  The trees, understory plants, fungi and microbes in a forest are so thoroughly connected, communicative and codependent that some scientists have described them as superorganisms.”

Laetiporus Sulphureus Mushrooms 
growing on a log amongst other understory plants
Simrad, along with her colleagues and other foresters, have found that individual trees are connected within a forest through this mycorrhizal system that intertwines itself on the roots of trees and plants.  This is a symbiotic relationship where the mycorrhizae feed on the sugars produced in the process of photosynthesis by the trees.  In exchange, the mycorrhizae have the ability to scavenge nutrients and transfer them to the tree roots while also forming an intricate system to connect trees and plants in an area.  They have found that this underground fungal system allows trees to “communicate” with each other.  Now, tree “talk” is not the same as human communication, so you have to look at tree talk from the perspective of a tree.  Trees communicate using chemical, hormonal and electrical signals—in a sense they speak a language all their own which means we as humans have to try to interpret what they are “saying” and most of the time we don’t even realize what’s happening.  They communicate through their root system which is directly tapped into the mycorrhizae, but also in the air using pheromones and other scent signals.

Trees line the river winding through our valley
When the vast mycorrhizal system is present, trees are able to translocate nutrients and water from one tree to others all across the forest.  Remember, trees cannot get up and walk to the river to get a drink and trees in a forest usually don’t have a human built irrigation system to move water to their roots.  So, they have essentially built their own irrigation system!  They also send nutrients through these channels, releasing nutrients to move to other trees in need, and receiving nutrients when they need them.  In this way, the forest, with all its trees and plants, becomes a community which takes care of the different members.  Simrad has also observed the value of “Mother Trees” in a forest.  These are mature trees that seem to nurture and care for young trees, imparting not only nutrients and water to help them thrive, but also tree wisdom.  Trees communicate through pheromones and chemicals to warn other trees of danger, insects, disease, drought, etc which allows the trees to then mount their own defenses to help them withstand whatever may threaten their survival.

A "birds-eye" view of Harmony Valley Farm
But why should we care about trees or how they communicate?  Why does any of this even matter to us?  In an interview Simrad did with Yale Environment 360, she was quoted as saying, “A forest is a cooperative system.  To me using the language of ‘communication’ made more sense because we were looking at not just resource transfers, but things like defense signaling and kin recognition signaling.  We as human beings can relate to this better.  If we can relate to it, then we’re going to care about it more.  If we care about it more, then we’re going to do a better job of stewarding our landscapes.”  Simply put, we need trees and forests.  They are an important part of our ecosystem and help us in many ways.  They help us combat climate change by capturing carbon and storing it in the soil.  They are a part of the amazing way Mother Nature purifies our air and water.  When we destroy forests, we take more than just the tree itself.  We destroy an entire organism that is an important part of our ecosystem.

Frosty winter trails 
Our health and well-being are also impacted by trees. 
Shinrin-yoku is a Japanese term that means “forest bathing.”  It is the practice of casually walking through the woods, a simple practice that we’re learning can contribute in meaningful ways to our overall wellness.  In Japan, they have over 60 official forest therapy trails and many doctors are becoming certified in forest medicine.  They are using this type of nature therapy as a means of combatting the negative impact stress has on our bodies.  It is a low cost, natural way to improve health by preventatively lowering stress levels while improving quality of life and fostering a greater overall sense of wellbeing.   There’s a growing body of research to support this practice, as researchers measure and document the physiological and psychological effects on the human body when in a natural environment.  Some of the observations they’ve made include reduction in blood pressure, increases in factors related to immunity, and increased relaxation.  You see, we too can be part of the forest community and whether we know it or not, perhaps the trees sense our presence and respond to us as well.

Whether you choose to explore this topic more on your own or not, at the very least I encourage you to spend a little time this winter exploring the winter landscape around you.  Get outside and walk in nature.  Notice the trees around you and enjoy their presence.  Garner a newfound respect for them and be part of their community.  After all, we as humans have the choice to be their advocate, allies and protectors, or their opposition.


Simrad, Suzanne.  Finding The Mother Tree.  Penguin Random House, 2021 May.

Wohlleben, Peter.  The Hidden Life of Trees:  What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries From a Secret World.  Greystone Books, 2016 September.

1 comment:

crloeb said...

Wonderful post, Andrea! I had read and was very intrigued by "The Social Life of Forests" and thus was glad to read your further reflections here. We humans have so much to learn, including humility!